Students in Milwaukee’s two-decade-old voucher program are more likely to finish high school than their public school peers, new research shows.
Educational choice supporters tout the findings as further evidence of the program’s ability to boost student outcomes. But local public school officials question the significance of the results.
The study by University of Minnesota sociologist John Robert Warren found the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) had a graduation rate of 77 percent compared to 65 percent for Milwaukee Public Schools between 2003 and 2008. Looking at all the city’s high schools, Warren estimates 3,352 additional public school students would have graduated high school over the same period if they had received vouchers.
“It’s just more evidence that [the MPCP] provides an excellent way to improve academic performance for low-income students,” said Mike Ford, vice president of operations for the advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin, which sponsored the research.
Cost-Effective Results Found
Milwaukee’s school choice program has grown from serving 337 students in 1990-91 to more than 20,000 during the 2009-10 school year. To be eligible for a voucher to attend a private school, a student must live in Milwaukee and have a family income at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty level (equal to $38,175 for a family of four).
“Private high schools are free to do things that public high schools can’t do, so it increases the likelihood that parents can find a school that works for their students,” Ford said.
In recent years MPCP has been hit with a number of new state regulations and had its funding cut. The city’s voucher schools operate on costs of $6,442 per pupil, compared to $14,011 for the surrounding school district.
“The Milwaukee story is an example of an embattled yet successful school choice program educating students at a higher level than traditional public schools at a fraction of the per-pupil cost,” said Andrew Campanella, spokesman for the Washington, DC-based Alliance for School Choice.
Under current law, the voucher program’s enrollment is capped at 22,500.
Milwaukee Public Schools officials disputed the significance of Warren’s findings, saying he didn’t capture data on graduation rates according to research methods preferred by Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction.
“We don’t feel that the mobility of students or the loss of students during their tenure in high school is really accounted for in this study,” said MPS spokeswoman Roseann St. Aubin.
But Ford notes Warren found no evidence of different mobility rates between public school and voucher students. “He did explore all the possible biases and controlled for them,” Ford said.
St. Aubin said some of the disparity in graduation rates could be accounted for by the fact that 18 percent of MPS students require special education services, a significantly higher rate than the 9 percent of Milwaukee voucher students in special education.
Ford said the numbers could not account for the graduation disparity. The ability of three Milwaukee public high schools to screen incoming students academically—an option unavailable to their choice school counterparts—more than offsets the difference in special education numbers, he said.
Benefits of Competition
Warren’s report finds the graduation rates for both sets of students are improving. Ford attributes that to the competition fostered by vouchers. The 2007-08 Milwaukee Public School graduation rate was 68.3 percent, up from 61 percent in 2002-03, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
“We do have a long way to go,” St. Aubin acknowledged.
Ford says Warren’s findings should give new credence to Milwaukee’s parental choice program. “Attainment is the most important measure” of educational success, he said.
Campanella agrees, saying the new study should encourage policymakers in other jurisdictions to take another look at voucher programs.
“One of the most significant indicators of a child’s success in life is the graduation rate,” he said. “The fact that the Milwaukee voucher program yields higher graduation rates than the city’s traditional public schools should make people stop and think, ‘Wow, we should replicate that.'”
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.
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“Graduation Rates for Choice and Public School Students in Milwaukee, 2003-2008,” by John Robert Warren, University of Minnesota, February 2010.